Statistically speaking, buying lottery tickets is stupid. The odds of winning are extremely poor, and unfortunately, a disproportionally high number of tickets are purchased by low-income households—the people who can least afford to throw away money on the lottery.
Outside of the sheer entertainment value of entering these games of chance, then, playing the lottery is a colossal waste of money. Unless, of course, you win. And if your winnings outweigh your cash outlay, well, it’s almost dumb not to play.
According to a new investigation by the Charlotte News & Observer, some people have indeed been winning a lot more than they lose. In fact, the number of North Carolina lottery players who have claimed multiple wins has soared recently. In 2015, 223 players claimed big prizes from five or more scratch-off games, compared to just 59 in 2009. One woman won 21 scratch-off games in 2014, and 17 the year after. She has averaged about one sizeable jackpot per month over the past five years. Since 2008, another player has cashed in a total of 55 winning lottery tickets with prizes worth at least $600 each.
The odds of the latter happening are “less than 1 in 1 trillion, trillion, trillion,” Virginia Tech statistician George Rooney told the News & Observer.
None of the winning lottery players have been accused of any wrongdoing, and lottery officials say that hitting the jackpot simply comes down to how frequently someone plays and dumb luck. But could anyone truly be as lucky as the repeat winners mentioned above? Some experts are skeptical.
“In my mind, it doesn’t seem feasible they would have won this many times,” Rooney said.
One possible explanation for the unusual frequency with which some players win would be that they’ve figured out a way to game the system. There have been notorious examples of this taking place in the past. But there’s been no evidence of foul play in North Carolina in recent years.
Another explanation is that some of the “winners” haven’t truly been winning quite as often as they claim. Instead, they’ve purchased the winning tickets at less than their true value and turned them in to retrieve the full prize.
Why would the true winners want to sell? If someone who owes back taxes or child support wins the lottery, North Carolina and many other states automatically deduct what they owe from what’s paid out in the jackpot. For instance, one 2013 Powerball winner had $29,000 automatically deducted from his take because he owned that much in unpaid child support.
However, by selling a winning lottery ticket for cash—which is apparently not a crime in North Carolina, though it is a punishable offense in some states—a player can collect a quick payout without having to pony up previously owed money.
Again, no one has been accused of engaging in such practices. But the numbers suggest that something isn’t quite on the up and up.